Religious Freedom: Reflections on Nigeria

AFJN

By Aniedi Okure, Executive Director

This article was first published in our July-September Newsletter.

On September 12, 2012 Aniedi Okure made a presentation at International Religious Freedom Conference: An Imperative for Peace and the Common Good. The following is a summary of the conversation.The bombing of numerous churches and killings of Christians in Nigeria by Boko Haram, a fundamentalist Islamic group, has raised questions about religious freedom in Nigeria. The Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (CFRN) guarantees freedom of thought, conscience and religion and freedom to propagate ones religion, beliefs, practice and observance publicly or in private (CFRN Chapter IV #38). As such, Nigeria has no official state religion.  The state recognizes and declares as national public holidays, the major religious holidays of Christians and Muslims: Good Friday, Easter Monday and Christmas for Christians and Id-El-Fitri, Id-El-Kabir, Hajire and Id-El-Maulud for Muslims. However, religious freedom understood as the liberty to practice ones faith openly and freely without overt or covert restrictions is hampered in parts of Nigeria by certain constitutional provisions and customary practices:

Sharia Court & Land Use

The constitution provides for the Federal Sharia Court of Appeal (CFRN Chapter VII, Part I # E) and the State Sharia Court of Appeal (CFRN Chapter VII, Part II # B) as a form of customary law. Although in theory the Sharia applies to Muslims, its constitutional provision elevates a religious law to the status of the laws of the state, and thus creates a dual legal system in parts of the country. Secondly, whereas a Muslim can acquire land and build a Mosque anywhere, Christians cannot do the same in most northern states of Nigeria. Christians need a permit to build a church. The process is long, cumbersome and in some cases almost impossible. In some northern Nigerian states this practice creates an environment that makes exercise of religious freedom difficult for minority religious communities.

Beyond the Sharia Law and land use, the restrictive environment found in the northern part of Nigeria is rooted in (1) Islamic influenced indigenous feudal system, (2) Nigeria’s colonial political culture and (3) nurtured by the Islamic principle that makes no separation between religion and the state as found in Western liberal democracies. These factors exacerbate the mental & ideological divide between the far northern and southern parts of Nigeria.

Feudal System, Direct & Indirect Rule

Nigeria came into existence as one country in 1914 when the British amalgamated the protectorate of northern Nigeria and the protectorate of southern Nigeria into one country. Despite the merger, the British maintained two systems of governance within the same country, namely direct and indirect rule. Direct rule was maintained in the south which meant a more intrusive colonization and administration in the south, and indirect rule in the north whereby the colonial administration indirectly governed the north through the Islamic influenced feudal system. The British propped up the feudal system, using the indigenous Muslim elite as surrogates for colonial administration. Besides they saw the feudal system, which was akin to the British Monarchy at the time, as civilized compared to the southern areas where majority had participatory systems of governance which the British dubbed “village democracy”.

Indirect rule made easy governance and taxation of the vast territory in the north through the traditional Muslim rulers. Over time, the system entrenched Muslim elite as political surrogates for the colonizers, creating a mentality of their divine right to governance of the country. While we note that Nigeria achieved “independence” more than fifty years ago, it is also true that old habits die hard, and habits that are integral to the socio-political and economic systems and ingrained in the mind over many decades cannot be easily ignored.

Government Practices

Since independence, certain practices have contributed to nurturing the Muslim governance ideology including the registering of Nigeria in the OIC (Organization of Islamic Conference), government subsidy of pilgrimage to Mecca, and internal political deals within the PDP (Peoples Democratic Party), currently the majority political party. PDP leaders enter into agreement to rotate its presidential candidate between the north and the south. While these may seem harmless, they do matter. When located in the context of Islam that makes no separation between religion and the state as understood in modern western democracies, these practices contribute to creating an environment that makes Christianity appear as an intruder, a guest so to speak and makes an average Muslim see Islam as the religion of the state, the Muslim elites as the legitimate rulers of the country and Christians as intruders. Besides, the Qur’an states that “There is no authority of infidels over the Muslims” (Qur’an 4. 41). While this can be interpreted in various ways, for the Muslim fundamentalist, it is clear. A non-Muslim president is an illegitimate ruler.

Linking Christianity with the West

Most Muslim fundamentalists link Christianity with the west and consequently with the shortcomings of the west. When for example civil liberties from the west are tested in Africa in ways that infringe on local religious moral code and cultural practices, it reinforces Boko Haram mentality that western ways are an abomination. They extrapolate this guilt to Christianity by association. With no central Magisterium, the Qur’an can be interpreted and carried in any direction for a hostile environment or for the good of the society. We must note however that most Muslims in Nigeria are not hostile terrorists waiting to impose Islam on the country.

A Climate of Impunity

Boko Haram thrives in part due to corruption and the manipulation of religion, the lack of the rule of law and the impunity by politicians and law enforcement agency.  The lack of the rule of law and accountability on the part of politicians; extra judicial killings by law enforcement and failure of state governors to act in timely manner or take appropriate action to bring crime perpetrators to justice have contributed to creating a hostile religious environment. For example, Boko Haram’s initial conflict was internal to the Muslim community and targeted moderate Muslims they felt supported Western values. The extra judicial killing of its leader by the police contributed to increasing the violence by his followers. Besides acting with impunity and extra judicial killings, other factors such as corruption, the imbalance in income distribution; the opulence of the political elite and the poverty of the masses lead fundamentalist Muslims to erroneously think that the injustices are a result of western values and understood the bearer of Christianity conclude that strict Islam is the answer.  For those eager to assist Nigeria address religious freedom and the threat of  Boko Haram, it is imperative to understand the deeper ideological issues at work. One cannot stamp out an ideology with guns and bombs.